For Nonwhites, It's Racist Propaganda
by Keith Morrison
Originally published in The Washington Post, Sunday, July 3, 1988
The Gauguin exhibition opened at the National Gallery of Art to glowing press reviews. Viewers stand in long lines every day and pack the show. Movie stars, entertainers, fashion designers, the chic, the rich and the famous glamorize the attendance list. Yet, to some people, many of them nonwhite, the exhibition and the adulation bestowed on it by a predominantly white culture seem vaguely insulting. In the museum world in which the Gauguin exhibition so comfortably thrives, nonwhites can feel disenfranchised. To many of them the exhibition glorifies the white culture's myth about the noble savage and his "free-spirited" (translated: simple-minded) nature. It is a myth graphically illustrated in this most comprehensive exhibition ever of the artistic legacy of Paul Gauguin.
This legacy is due in no small part to his contribution to the concept of the artist as a spiritual sauvage. The French word sauvage, meaning an unspoiled primitive or an uninhibited and natural spirit, has no exact translation in English. The commonly accepted belief about the art of Gauguin is that he achieved its sauvage quality through the influence of the simple people of Polynesia with whom he went to live. However, a careful look at the ideas and sources of his art invalidates this view. No doubt his early childhood in South America and his travels as a sailor made an impression upon him before he became a serious artist. However, his life and work as an artist show that his early wandering did not create the sauvage in him, but, rather, brought out the uninhibited spirit that was a part of his nature. In fact, he called himself a sauvage, bragging about some supposed distant Incan ancestry on his mother's side.
Gauguin's famous "Yellow Christ," painted in Brittany in 1889, before he went to live in Tahiti for the first time, expresses a view of the Crucifixion as a ritual of the sauvage as enacted by Europeans in a European setting. Other aspects of his art seen in "Yellow Christ" serve to underscore the fact that most of his best artistic ideas developed in Europe. One of these is the emphasis on two-dimensional shapes in painting. A second is the use of simplified, expressive color. A third is the arrangement of monumental forms, shapes that seem larger than they actually are. Another is the creation of patterns to form pictorial composition in painting. "Yellow Christ" is an example of Gauguin's early attempt to shape a world view of his own spirituality by synthesizing aspects of many cultures. An apt description of the painting was written in a catalogue in 1891 by the critic Octave Mirbeau: "A rich, disturbing blend of barbaric splendor, Catholic liturgy, Hindu reverie, Gothic imagery, obscure and subtle symbolism." Thus, before going to live in the South Sea Islands for the first time, Gauguin already had in place the qualities of greatness for which he is known. A comparison between the art he did in Europe and that which he did in the South Seas reveals much.
"La Orana Maria" (The Holy Mary), done in 1891-92, is from his first period in Tahiti. The painting contains many of the stylistic qualities of "Yellow Christ": The forms are simplified to seem primitive; they have a monumental sense of proportion; bright, expressive color is used to flatten the depth of the pictorial space; and patterns relate shapes to one another independent of their literal meaning. Like "Yellow Christ," the Tahitian painting seems to express the emotional state of Gauguin himself, through the creation of a romantic environment for which he yearned. The significant difference between the two paintings is that they reflect two different sociological points of view. The earlier one shows Europeans to be holy people, while the latter shows dark-skinned people to be holy. In "La Orana Maria" the artist simply dresses qualities of the former painting in local garb. "La Orana Maria" was well received in Paris, probably because it was accepted as an image of placid heathens being converted to Christian verities. The Parisians might also have been fascinated by the sympathetic way in which a fellow Frenchman painted what appeared to be a pagan ritual and a sacrilege. They seemed to have taken vicarious pleasure in the idea, judging from the popularity of the painting.
On his return to France in 1892, Gauguin created a number of significant works including the ceramic sculpture "Oviri," (Sauvage) in 1894. It is about a Tahitian goddess who rules over death and mourning. Again, Gauguin explores what is to him an expression of things wild, primitive and mysterious. However, an earlier work such as "Jug in the Form of a Head," (done in 1889, before his first Tahitian period), withblood drenching his own death mask, is equally as primitive. If understood in a context that shows its relationship to his early work, it becomes clear that "Oviri" is the artist's expression of his own fantasy rather than an authentic portrayal of the Tahitian deity.
One of the paintings of Gauguin's final period in the South Seas is "Te rerioa" (Nevermore). The figures havebeen given a lifeless calm and a primitive simplicity that was a part of the predetermined vision that the artist held of Polynesians. Here Gauguin painted a vision of a personal Utopia,Artists from Picasso to Henry Moore have explored the mirage of a nonwhite primitivism. Gauguin contributed much to the origin of this idea. which he did not find there. In fact, this final period of his life was wracked with his own legal battles, and public and domestic turmoil on Hiva Oa.
Would Gauguin be considered such a great artist if he had not painted Polynesian scenes and Polynesian women? These are his most popular works and the commonly accepted source of his greatness. Yet, as we know, the formal and esthetic aspects of his work are the tangible qualities of his genius. Most of those ideas that characterize all of his best works, regardless of where they were done, were in place before he went to the South Seas. Gauguin seemed to be not unlike many other men of his time: a restless ex-sailor with a love of far-off lands carrying a lecherous white colonial's license to bed down dark-skinned women. The esthetic qualities of his art made Gauguin great. Mingling modern art with exotic darkies made him famous.
Gauguin's art is about his own sexual fantasies. With Gauguin, the artist's self became the nucleus of his subject. The artist made art about himself and his ego became art itself. The use of one's biographical fantasy, indeed one's psyche, as the subject of one's art is a 20th-century phenomenon. The greatness of Gauguin was not only in the pioneering way in which his art was so daringly drawn from his psyche, anticipating Freudian psychology, but also in the way his iconography cut across cultures, anticipating modern sociology. In Gauguin's mind, his inner-self was found far from the "civilized," which to him meant European decadence and sterility. His inner-self was found through experience of the purely uninhibited.
Yet, despite the importance of its use of new psychological ideas, Gauguin's art was, in a sense, based upon a curiously inverted kind of racist propaganda.
One whole branch of modern art has glorified primitivism as an attribute imported to Western culture. Artists from Picasso to Henry Moore have explored the mirage of a nonwhite primitivism. Gauguin contributed much to the origin of this idea. His artistic fantasy about the natural and uninhibited primitivism of other people -- whether he meant it as a compliment or not -- was racist, since neither the Tahitians nor any other people portrayed in his art were the source of his vision.
There is no indication, however, that Gauguin was any more racist than other artists of his time. The difference between him and them was that he made nonwhite people a part of his visual autobiography while others did not. He was probably no more racist than the insensitive -- or perhaps just unsensitized -- audiences that accepted the implications of his work without qualm -- and still do.
In the art of Gauguin, and in the unquestioning acceptance of it by hordes of contemporary audiences (be they chic and famous or not), there is still the assumption that he needed the primitivism of other people for his spiritual salvation. In fact, this was not true. He had been carrying his spirituality, and by self-definition his own primitivism, with him from Europe all along.